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Sea holly – ix-xewk tar-ramel – Eryngium maritimum

Close-ups of Maltese nature plants around us

Darrin Stevens

The sea holly, known as ix-xewk tar- ramel in Maltese, is very rare habitat and is confined to sand dune communities.

It is a perennial plant with a tough greyish-blue herb of 20-60cm height, appearing as a shrub rather than a herb due to its rigid stem and foliage. It has glaucous stems, much-branched and striated, with thick, wavy-edged leaves with spines along the margin.

They are small white or whitish-blue flowers forming white ovoid bunches surrounded by spiny bracts, which are either bluish-green or purple between June and September.

The sea holly is considered as an important plant for sand dune stabilisation. The rhizome was utilised for culinary purposes in some parts of the Mediterranean, due to its carrot-like taste, and for medicinal purposes, such as against pulmonary infections and as a diuretic.

Maltese sand dunes also have characteristic invertebrate fauna namely nematodes (round­worms), annelids (segmented worms), several insects, amphi­pods (shrimp-like crustaceans) and isopods (sessile eyes crustaceans).

Over the years, many sand dunes have been lost and nowadays this habitat types is extremely restricted in the Maltese islands. Presently there are only few that still persist and are among the rarest and most threatened of local ecosystems. The Maltese sand dune habitats are legally protected through the Natura 2000 network and one should not prune, fell or uproot this plant without previously obtaining the necessary permits from the authorities.

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